Give It Up For Washington Monthly

Ezra Klein offers an extraordinarily perceptive analysis of how lobbyists influence Congress, Minjae Park cuts through the simplified rhetoric about how admitting international students necessarily promotes cultural interchange at U.S. universities, Kevin Drum worries about a coming inter-generational struggle among Americans, Kathleen Geier illuminates the work of film critic Andrew Saris and journalist Gitta Serenyi, Ed Kilgore and Steve Benen fight the good fight against voter suppression and Daniel Luzer eviscerates a sexist campaign that is allegedly intended to interest girls in science.

What do all these smart people have in common? All of them work at or started their careers at our sister outlet, Washington Monthly. I know from comments here and from looking at our traffic numbers that many of you read Washington Monthly and the many great journalists whose careers it has nurtured. Please consider showing your appreciation for people who have enriched your intellectual and political life by following this link and helping the magazine continue its 40 year tradition of investigative journalism and stimulating commentary.

The facts and the truth

NPR has changed its rules for journalists  [HTs and more discussion: DK, James Fallows] from reporting “both sides” of any issue to including expert judgment about the sides’ relative weight.  This is a very big deal. Print journalism used to be quite partisan, but around the turn of the 20th century, wire services started to market a product designed to be attractive to all newspapers, and invented the idea of “balanced reporting” presented as an ethical principle, a bowl of grits model of news: tasteless, vitamin-free calories that can’t offend anyone. The idea was to stick to facts, and to present them in pairs. This degenerate idea of fairness and ‘accuracy’ became a de facto standard for newspapers generally.  For example: “Galileo Galilei announced today that three moons circle Jupiter, but the Bishop of Padua said that was impossible.”  Martin Linsky used to demand that the press report the truth and not just the facts: that Galileo and the bishop said what they said are indeed facts, but it’s essential for the reader to know that Galileo had seen the moons doing their thing with a telescope, while the bishop only had an dogeared copy of Aristotle. Supply your own current illustration from, for example, climate science reporting.

So-called “he said/she said” reporting, as the NPR code now recognizes, makes the reporter the servant of her sources and not the reader/listener.  Reporters are not just selling news to us; they are selling us to politicians, lobbyists, and their other sources, and they are paid by access.  If your copy isn’t useful to a senator, the senator will not return your calls.  When the senator says what is not true, and the reporter says “Senator Foghorn lied to a press conference this morning”,  the reporter is being useful to us but not to the senator, and her editor will wonder why Foghorn’s bill funding a new highway was in all the other papers first.

If NPR’s understanding of what it really means to report catches on, the news is going to get a lot more useful and interesting. It will also lead to some ugly battles between politicians and corporate shills accustomed to the idea that they have some right to pump any kind of nonsense through the media, and real journalists trying to do their jobs. And keep their jobs in a world where reprinting press releases and sending a reporter to stand in the rain on camera to tell us it’s raining somewhere is more and more all the industry can afford.  Until we fix the broken business model for content, things may get even worse before they get better, but NPR is on the side of the angels (and on ours) here.


He wishes I may, I wish I might.

Requiem for the past subjunctive.

Headline from this morning’s New York Times (fixed in the online edition, but with the original headline noted): “9/11 May Have Been Stopped but for High-Level Dysfunction, Ex-F.B.I. Agent Writes.”

Even as conspiracy theories go, this one is extreme. I’ve never heard anyone claim before that the twin towers may not have fallen after all—that they may possibly still be standing, even though absolutely everyone in authority is claiming certainty that they’re not.

The sub-editor, of course, meant to say “might,” not “may” (and the reporter, not guilty of the error, uses “might” correctly several times in the article).  As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, “may” indicates uncertainty in the present. “Might,” the past subjunctive, indicates a possibility in the past that we know, in the present, did not come to pass. Its equivalent in spoken colloquial language is “could have maybe.” “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ ”: might have been, not may. “It may have been” are uncertain words, not sad ones.

Except in very finicky forums, the English subjunctive is on the decline.  Judging by my students’ papers, the past subjunctive is in even worse shape; a properly-used “might” is more rarity than rule.

When it comes to language, we are all descriptivists of a sort. (A “prescriptivist” merely describes the usage of a different set of people—a preferred set of writers today, or writers in the past or in another language such as Latin—rather than that of the average person today.) If words shift their meaning, at some point we must shift with them. If you’re trying to be clear to the average reader, rather than seeking academic status, you shouldn’t say “disinterested” when you mean “impartial” (as opposed to the word’s more common current meaning, namely “bored”).

Still, some words and usages are genuinely useful, and we should mourn their passing. When everyone but the (revised) New York Times uses “may” to mean “might,” it sometimes becomes genuinely hard to distinguish whether we know what happened and are trying on counterfactuals, or are genuinely uncertain. This might have been avoided if American high schools hadn’t given up on teaching grammar. But at this point, there may be nothing we can do. Maybe I should embrace “could have maybe” in student papers: a clunky construction, but at least one whose intended meaning is clear.

Update: I seem to have missed Keith’s earlier post along the same lines. I think I’m becoming even less prescriptive than he is—which surprises me.


Must we put his name in lights?

I can’t prove what I believe: If we stopped rewarding mass murderers with the mass publicity they crave, we might have somewhat fewer of these atrocities.

I haven’t posted much on the Arizona killings. The enormity of the tragedy demands a respectful silence, unless one actually has something useful to say. Most everything constructive I would say has already been said by someone else with greater force than I would muster.

I would mention again the importance of long-term care and rehabilitative medicine. The typical 9mm bullet is quite adequate to lacerate human body parts, sometimes beyond repair. Every day, thousands of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, try to repair these lacerating wounds, and try to repair over months and years the human lives lacerated by such gun violence. Most of these men and women labor in relative obscurity. I happen to be away delivering a talk at a VA facility where some of these professionals do their work. Their faces rarely grace the front page of your local newspaper. There just isn’t the space to honor everyone who deserves it.

I’ll bet that your local newspaper found the space for this crazed mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner, the disturbed young man who apparently committed mass murder. He’s gotten his fifteen minutes, which I suspect is what he really wanted: to see his name and his picture in lights.

Can we not do that?

Much in our popular culture—from Silence of the Lambs, to Nancy Grace, ironically, to the death penalty itself—creates in some people an enticing motive for atrocity. Shoot someone famous, and you’ll end up an (anti) celebrity, on the cover of People or Newsweek. That’s a heck of a lot easier than finding the cure for AIDS, winning an NBA championship or “Dancing with the Stars,” not to mention accomplishing the intricate repair of brain tissue damaged by a 9mm round.

I wish there were a way to shun mass murderers the way we shun grimy child molesters. We should know who they are. The police, forensic experts, and the court system should do what they need to do. Yet I wish we lived in a world in which the rest of us gave this necessary work a little more distance and private space, in which it’s considered rather distasteful, even disgusting to publicize without some very good reason the little people who commit huge crimes.

I can’t prove what I believe. If we stopped rewarding these criminals with the massive publicity, we might have somewhat fewer of these atrocities.

This is a test….

Did you hear about the “family values” party rejecting a bill to fight pedophilia? You should have.

….of the Democratic Party Noise Machine.  And it’s failing.

Yesterday, House Republicans, under orders from John Boehner, voted to kill the Child Marriage Prevention Act, a relatively small bill designed to focus US international aid efforts on preventing girls from being sold into slavery and forced “marriages.”  The GOP falsely claimed that the bill would increase abortions because it mentions “health services,” even though it is subject to the standard Hyde Amendment restrictions, and nowhere mentions abortion or family planning. 

Now, imagine if the shoe was on the other partisan foot.  By now, Mike Savage, Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh would already be announcing that Democrats favor child rape.  Fox News would have run several stories.  Hannity and O’Reilly would devote two shows to the issue.  And by the end of the week, some moron from the New York Times — probably Adam Nagourney — would write a Page One piece entitled something like “Experts Disagree on Whether Democrats Support Pedophilia.”

I first found out about this from the blogosphere, specifically TPM and the Washington Monthly.  But this shows how the stronger Republican electronic infrastructure drives the conversation.  The Right has Fox News and talk radio.  We have some blogs.  (And no, MSNBC and Jon Stewart aren’t close).  That’s not a recipe for political success.

How Not to Refute an Academic Blogger in One Embarrassing Omission

On Megan McArdle, Mel Gibson, and inconvenient facts.

While my recent post on the tax deal has sparked a fair amount of debate, which I hope to respond to soon, I wouldn’t normally bother with Megan McArdle’s lengthy and snarky attack on it.  But when she calls what she takes to be my scorched-earth position on negotiating strategy (not actually my position, but more on that in a later post) a “big favorite of academics, who I infer have watched a lot of Mel Gibson movies”—since academics would never get the idea that a reputation for craziness provides negotiating advantages from, say, a Nobel Prize-winning economist—my professional pride is involved.  So bring it on. Let’s see what a Village journalist considers hard-nosed political wisdom.

Writes McArdle,

Sabl’s question seems to me like an incredibly unrealistic one.  It assumes that by really slick application of game theory, progressives can somehow move the dial, so that what negotiations theorists call the ZOPA–the Zone of Possible Agreement–shifts dramatically, making possible much more progressive outcomes than have been realized recently.
But a lot of what professional negotiators do is simply recognize what the limits of the ZOPA are.  They don’t waste energy trying to shift it to encompass impossible outcomes.  Immediately after Democrats have lost a midterm election by historic margins (something I believe I may have mentioned) is not a propitious time to be trying to shift the ZOPA leftward.
The logic of that can’t be faulted.  After all, the Republicans would have been incredibly unrealistic to respond to historic losses in two straight elections by moving rightward.  And they would have been heavily punished at the ballot box if they had.
By the way, Ms. McArdle, in case the previous two sentences were too highfalutin’ and academic for you, I was being ironic.  Don’t know what that means?  There’s an excellent summary in this Ethan Hawke movie.

Update: See Megan McArdle’s comments, and mine, below.  Her comments are substantive in content and handsome in tone, and I hope my response is too.  Elbows having been thrown, I think we’re ready to shake hands and play on.

The Dilemma of the Pundit with Nothing to Say

I admire Kevin Drum’s candor about the dilemma of having to write a regular column when you don’t necessarily have anything profound to say as often as the column appears. I believe this problem affects some of the “hacks” that Alex Pareene singles out for lousy work (I didn’t agree with all his list, but some of his choices are dead on).

When I wrote an occasional column about health and medicine for the San Francisco Chronicle, my (truly wonderful) editor was always asking me to write more often. But it was only every 3 weeks or so when I felt I had something sufficiently important to write about, and, had enough time to do the research and prose polishing to give it a proper analysis. The only way I could have complied with a weekly deadline is to write less well about less important things.

The columnist/pundit’s dilemma is that every call to comment on this or that news item is a chance to push their own brand, and every published column is a payday. They thus have no incentive to say “You know, I don’t know enough about that to appear on your TV show and comment about it” or “Frankly, I don’t have a good column in me this week so I will pass”. I think that’s why many of us readers come away from some well-known columnists’ writing now and then with the sense that absolutely nothing of substance has been said.

Adventures in misquotation by the conservative blogosphere

My adventures fixing misquotation by the Daily Caller and then American Thinker.

I’m one of those commentators and policy wonks being savaged in the right-wing blogosphere after the Daily Caller‘s Jonathan Strong leaked Journolist emails. The Caller had my raw emails. Amazingly, it still managed to misquote me through a web programming error. Strong fixed the error when I complained about it—but not until the right-wing blogosphere twisted my misattributed words beyond recognition.

This, for example, is how J.R. Dunn of American Thinker characterized me in a piece called “JournoList and the Leftist Mentality” :

Harold Pollack (Aug 30, 2008, 11:43am) piously recommends turning to the Talmud for guidance — in a lengthy posting trying to justify the “Trig is really Bristol’s kid” story. Hillel and Maimonides would no doubt have approved.

Below is what I actually said in its entirety. To summarize for busy readers: the first two points provide a few reasons not to believe rumors about the Palin pregnancies. The third point is what the Daily Caller and then American Thinker misconstrue. I’m not sure what conservatives make of my final point—that this was “obviously way out of bounds.” To acknowledge that liberals would say such things wouldn’t advance Dunn’s crude liberals-are-evil thesis.*

Harold Pollack
Aug 30, 2008, 11:43am
Ezra said what I think better than I can. A few final amplifications.

1. Most infants with [Down Syndrome] are born to women <35, but that’s because the traditional amnio testing threshold is 35. That is now changing rapidly. I’ve actually been working on decision analyses of less invasive technologies for younger women. My tables are unavailable this moment, but Wikipedia gives the basic incidence figures: At maternal age 20 to 24, the probability is 1/1562; at age 35 to 39 the probability is 1/214. Above age 45, the probability is 1/19. (Unfortunately they left out the 40-44 group, but the number is greater than 1%.)

2. As for the implausibility of an unintended pregnancy, we’re not talking about Abraham and Sarah here. Ladies with 5 kids are known to have a 6th.

3. Lindsay, Palin would not be a liar or hypocrite even if this were true. Talmud instructs lies are sometimes permissable in difficult family circumstances. I would tell a public lie to keep an important family secret for my kid that is nobody else’s business.

4. Tough campaigns mess with our minds. This is obviously way out of bounds. If Republicans were spreading some similar meme about Jill Biden or a Democratic woman, we would all be freaking out about it. We can attack McCain for his horrible judgment in selecting someone so unprepared without going into this other stuff.

(The passage was corrected by the Daily Caller after I complained and before Dunn’s article appeared).

After I alerted American Thinker to the complete mismatch between Dunn’s article and what I actually said, this is how the site corrected their entry in response to my emails today (**See the Post-Post-Postscript below from August 5):

Harold Pollack (Aug 30, 2008, 11:43am) piously recommends turning to the Talmud for guidance — in a lengthy posting trying to justify the “Trig is really Bristol’s kid” story. Hillel and Maimonides would no doubt have approved. [Editor’s note: Mr. Pollack has written to AT denying that he wrote this, noting, “I have been misquoted by the Daily Caller…. I never said these things. Indeed I said the opposite publicly and privately many times. I am a caregiver for a mentally disabled man, and this episode is very hurtful to me.” AT has asked Mr. Pollack to forward the actual JournoList pages in question, as well as his objections to the dicussion of Trig, if any. Today, on the HuffPo, Pollack posted this “nod” to Sarah Palin on the issue of disabilities.]

Contrary to that sloppy editorial note in brackets, my “nod” to Sarah Palin wasn’t posted today. It appeared August 29, 2008–the day before that Journolist thread. That piece closed with the following:

A tough election should not blind us to our common humanity. Anyone who walks the walk in the service of her personal beliefs deserves my friendship. So congratulations, Governor. You don’t come close to earning my vote, but you are welcome in my home, any time.

Three days later, I wrote the following at Huffington Post:

The Palin pregnancies are not campaign issues — they just aren’t.

We should wish the Palins well personally, and then move on to the real issues: health care, Iraq, tax relief to working families. Every moment we spend on personal issues distracts attention from Palin’s odd or nonexistent views on key policy issues, from Senator McCain’s poor judgment in selecting a running mate so obviously unprepared to be President, and most important, from Senator McCain’s misguided approach to America’s future at home and abroad…..

Factually, politically, and morally, it never made much sense to chase rumors that Governor Palin was covering for her teen daughter’s pregnancy.

Almost every liberal activist and Obama supporter agreed with me. Few of us cared to traffic in rumors about Sarah Palin. We had better things to do.

Anyone who spent five minutes learning about me or my work would realize that the Daily Caller, and then even more sloppily, American Thinker‘s J.R. Dunn completely mischaracterized my views. Had he made any effort to contact me or had just googled “Harold Pollack” and “Sarah Palin,” everyone could both have been spared this embarrassment.

Dunn asserts: “Media leftists, and their co-conspirators in the academy and the think-tanks, manipulate and distort the news reaching the American public.…” Hey pal, look in the mirror.

As this was about to go live, I received the following email from Thomas Lifson of American Thinker: “Based on the information you sent, I have deleted the mention of you.”

Sure enough, they have removed the offending paragraph. That’s good, but it’s coming late. Dunn’s story has now proliferated across the conservative blogosphere. A public apology is in order.

JR Dunn’s response to this very post is here. It, also, speaks for itself.

*In his response to this post, Dunn claims that I mischaracterize him, because his thesis is that “liberals are dumb,” not that liberals are evil. I stand corrected.

After much prodding, American Thinker has done the right thing. The passage now reads:

Harold Pollack (Aug 30, 2008, 11:43am) piously recommends turning to the Talmud for guidance – in a lengthy posting trying to justify the “Trig is really Bristol’s kid” story. Hillel and Maimonides would no doubt have approved. [Editor’s note: Mr. Pollack has written to AT denying that he wrote this, noting, “I have been misquoted by the Daily Caller…. I never said these things. Indeed I said the opposite publicly and privately many times. I am a caregiver for a mentally disabled man, and this episode is very hurtful to me.” AT has asked Mr. Pollack to forward the actual JournoList pages in question, as well as his objections to the discussion of Trig, if any. On the HuffPo, Pollack posted this “nod” to Sarah Palin on the issue of disabilities. This appeared on August 29, 2008, not today, as erroneously posted here earlier. The Daily Caller has since corrected the transcript which was used in preparation of this article, so we believe the quotation was in error, and regret that we picked up an erroneous quotation.]

Eating the seed corn

Spoiler alert: if this post doesn’t spoil your week, or worse, you and I don’t share the same reality.

What makes human life worth living? Content, obviously: news, art, music, conversation – social intercourse in all media.  What makes it possible?  Food and drink, broadly defined: fresh water and all the plant and animal products we eat and use.

This morning I came upon a paper in Nature whose abstract is as follows (emphasis added):

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899.We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries. (paywall)

This finding – and I’m trying hard not to hyperventilate here – is not too far down the scary scale from discovering a small inbound asteroid. This is the whole ocean we’re talking about: the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year.  Oddly, I did not come upon it in the New York Times, which seems not to have run the story at all.  The Washington Post, I found only after I searched, did run the AP story somewhere way below whatever passes for the fold in a web edition, but I didn’t see it there either.  I found it, through a Brazilian accumulator, here.

How can this be? Well, the world’s production of traditional news (not newsworthy events, writing about them) is down along with the plankton (and the menu items at your favorite seafood restaurant…remember when you could have haddock for dinner?).  Every grownup, quality-conscious outlet is putting out less stuff every day, in fewer column-inches on smaller pages (or in more vacuous hours on TV padded out with ephemera that a small crew in a truck can get some meaningless video of).  The new, lean, pathetic Times just didn’t have room for this one (or salary to pay an editor to stay on top of stuff), a story I can make a case was the most important news of the week (why the Globo happened to put it on page one is not clear (as did the São Paulo paper), but muito obrigado, a Sra. da Silva também!).  I guess I can stay informed if I go to six web pages in four languages every day, but who has time, and why is that better than the way things were before the content markets fell apart?  And how long will even that strategy work?

We can’t live without the ocean, every time we look at climate change it’s worse than we thought, and we can’t get back from the precipice, or even know how close it is, without news.

We are so f____ed.